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Disease threatens survivors of Guatemala mudslide

October 16, 2005

By Eduardo Garcia

PANABAJ, Guatemala (Reuters) – Doctors fear that
overcrowding and septic water could lead to a rash of illness
among survivors of a landslide that swept away their Maya
Indian village this month.

Thousands of people from Panabaj have crammed into churches
and houses in the nearby village of Santiago and other towns
while the government races to build temporary shelters.

“The worst problem now is the risk of epidemics,” Alfonso
Verdu, coordinator of Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala,
said late on Saturday. “I don’t think the situation in Santiago
is under control.”

He said doctors have seen dozens of cases of diarrhea among
survivors as well as dysentery, hepatitis A and chicken pox.

Thousands of people were vaccinated against tetanus last
week in the main square of the Santiago.

Panabaj sat between a volcano and Lake Atitlan’s turquoise
waters in spectacular countryside that draws thousands of
American and European backpackers every year.

But it disappeared on October 5 under a deadly slick of
mud, rocks and trees that poured hundreds of yards (meters)
down the volcano after Hurricane Stan drenched the region with
rain.

Police prevented people on Sunday from entering the
stinking remains of the mostly buried town where authorities
say there could be more than 1,000 dead, but stray dogs roamed
among the ruins.

Santiago Mayor Diego Esquina estimated 4,400 people
survived the disaster, and more than 150 of them were living at
a convent in the village.

In one dank, small room, 20 people slept on dirty
mattresses.

Happy to be alive, they said they were afraid to go to
temporary buildings being built by the government because they
were too close to where the mudslide occurred.

“I’m not going to that shelter,” said survivor Maria
Ratzan.

After struggling for days to move tons of mud and look for
survivors and victims’ bodies, Panabaj was declared a mass
grave and is now covered in white lime to prevent the spread of
disease.

Fishermen were frustrated that fishing in Lake Atitlan has
been banned because of fears that contaminated fish could
trigger disease.

“They don’t want us to fish for the next six months or so
because the corpses of dogs or chickens washed away into the
lake might have contaminated the water,” said Gaspar Coquix.

“We are suffering,” said Coquix, a father of five. “We
don’t even have money to buy drinking water.”




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